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Israelis vote for fifth time in four years as Netanyahu seeks return

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Israelis vote for fifth time in four years as Netanyahu seeks return

Turnout at 23-year high as former PM’s far-right partners worry Israeli mainstream and international allies

Bethan McKernan and Quique Kierszenbaum in Jerusalem (for The Guardian)

Wed 2 Nov 2022 06.24 AEDT

Israelis have voted for the fifth time in less than four years as the former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu seeks a return to power alongside far-right allies.

Worried about turnout among an exhausted electorate, all 36 parties engaged in an energetic last campaigning push to encourage voters to leave the house.

Election officials said turnout had reached 57.7% by 6pm – nearly three points higher than the same time last year, and a 23-year record. The figures suggest all sides perceive Tuesday’s election as a high-stakes contest, with voters attempting to break the paralysing political deadlock of the past few years.

As with the four previous elections since 2019, Tuesday’s poll is largely a single-issue vote on whether the scandal-plagued Netanyahu is fit for office. Final polls published on Friday suggested that the Israeli public was once again split, with neither the pro- nor anti-Netanyahu camps predicted to win a majority in the 120-seat Knesset.

If the polls are correct, Israel is set for an unprecedented sixth election next year. But a surge in popularity for Netanyahu’s new partners, the rightwing extremist Religious Zionist party, might propel the Likud party leader to a narrow victory.

“I’m a little worried,” Netanyahu said after voting. “I hope we end the day with a smile.”

At a voting station in Talpiot Mizrach, a gentrifying Jewish neighbourhood in Jerusalem, many of those who had cast ballots said they had voted for the centrist Yesh Atid, the party of the incumbent prime minister, Yair Lapid. His coalition does not have a clear path to remaining in power unless turnout in the Arab 20% of the population is high enough to counter the slight edge – which could come down to just one or two seats – expected for the Netanyahu bloc.

“We are worried about a far-right government, and supporting Yesh Atid seems like the best way to keep them out,” said Laura Solomon, 55, who moved to Israel from the US last year. “Honestly though, it feels better voting here than in the US. Here there is at least a plurality of voices, and it feels like your vote really matters.”

Ze’ev, 66, a greengrocer from Jerusalem’s middle-class Beka neighbourhood, said he would be voting for Netanyahu’s Likud: “He’s experienced and successful. Other people are jealous and try to bring him down.”

The scene at a school in the Arab neighbourhood of Beit Safafa was much quieter: of 5,600 registered voters in the area, only 100 had showed up by lunchtime, said Rami Ghita, who voted for the Arab nationalist Ta’al party.

According to a forecast from the aChord Center at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, based on samples from the Central Election Committee, Arab Israeli turnout stood at 17% at 2pm, which could mean Ta’al’s slate, a small anti-occupation voice in the Knesset, is in danger of losing its seats completely.

Ghita’s friend Ibrahim Kamal said he was not going to vote. “They’re all thieves, it doesn’t make any difference,” he said. “Every election, one party pops up and incites hatred against the Arabs to get votes. This time it’s Itamar Ben-Gvir.”

Perhaps the only major change in the political stalemate gripping Israel since 2019 is the rise of Ben-Gvir, the top candidate of the Religious Zionists. A former follower of the banned Kach terrorist group, with a conviction for inciting racism, he has promised to support legislation that would alter the legal code, which could Netanyahu evade a conviction in his corruption trial.

As a senior member of a rightwing coalition government, Ben-Gvir would also lobby for the deportation of “disloyal” Palestinian citizens of Israel.

His rocketing popularity has horrified the Israeli mainstream as well as international allies: the US and the UAE have reportedly warned the Likud that giving the Religious Zionists cabinet minister roles would damage bilateral relations. Netanyahu, however, has said such a choice cannot be made by outsiders.

Writing in the Yediot Ahronot daily on Tuesday, the columnist Nahum Barnea said such a rightwing coalition would threaten Israel’s future.

“Netanyahu nurtured [Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, the slate’s leader] and persuaded them to run together because he thought of them as the messiah’s donkey: he’s the messiah, and they will do his bidding. He may soon come to discover that they are the messiah, and he is their donkey … That same combination produced fascist movements in Europe,” he wrote.

Lapid has also been urging voters to block Netanyahu’s return. “These elections are [a choice] between the future and the past. So go out and vote today for our children’s future, for our country’s future,” he said after voting in his upmarket Tel Aviv neighbourhood.

Lapid was the architect of the “government of change”, a broad coalition of eight parties that banded together to remove Netanyahu from power in June 2021 but collapsed a year later because of infighting.

In Israel’s fragmented politics, no single party has won a parliamentary majority, and coalition-building is necessary to govern. Israelis have until 10pm (8pm GMT) to cast their ballots, after which complex horse-trading will get under way that could last for days.

After the votes are tallied, the parties have nearly three months to form a government. If they cannot, Israel will head to yet another election.

Anna, 19, from Baka, cast a vote for the first time on Tuesday, opting for the Labor party, which governed the country for decades but is now part of a shrinking leftwing.

“I wasn’t going to sit this out but my friends with similar politics are still undecided on who to vote for,” she said. “It’s grating that my first election is the fifth one in four years. I hope we don’t have to keep doing this again and again.”

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Article source: The Guardian, 2/11/2022

2024-05-08 07:04:10.000000

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